“Anyone listening to me who wants to look at pictures that make you smile and pictures that help you see hope, they’re inside Milwaukee Magazine,” said Andre Lee Ellis as he spoke about Sara Stathas’s photos of his event, 500 Tuxedos. Andre said he’d tell people and he’d keep telling people till the very last day of February to go look at the photos featuring 385 black men and boys dressed in tuxedos and marching through Milwaukee. Now here we are at the end of the February, and we invite people to take a look at these photos and to keep looking beyond the month and into the future.
Sara Stathas has been working with Milwaukee Magazine since she moved to Milwaukee in 2011, and they called on her to photograph 500 Tuxedos for the February issue of the Magazine. She was introduced to the assignment just a day before the event. The Magazine asked her to capture a “day-in-the-life” of 500 Tuxedo’s organizer, Andre Lee Ellis, as he facilitated nearly 400 men and boys coming together, dressing up, marching, and having a night on the town. Sara got to speak with Andre and learn about the roots of the event and Andre’s work as an activist.
I’m hoping the photo essay has legs, for myself of course, but also for Mr. Ellis, whose work is having such a positive influence in Milwaukee. Working on this shoot let me be the visual voice of another and showed me the impact of photography on history and community.
Andre came up with the idea for 500 Tuxedos a couple years back, when he and his wife were dressed up for a nice dinner out. A couple of the boys in their neighborhood saw the couple in their dress clothes and began asking them questions. Andre realized the boys didn’t have any role models who ever dressed up, and they didn’t have opportunities themselves to experience what it was like to dress up nicely and go out on the town. And so, he made a call for African American men to serve as mentors for African American boys, each man sponsoring a boy so he could rent a tuxedo and take part in the march, prayer service, and dinner in downtown Milwaukee. The event started with 150 men and boys, and this past year grew to 385.
The men and boys gathered at a local community center, where everyone changed into their tuxedos. Sara says that instantly upon everyone’s meeting, she realized that profiling Andre would be a challenge. Andre had a lot to do the whole day, taking care of the event and the people and Sara didn’t want to distract from his job. She decided not to take him away for a portrait, but instead to take action portraits that she hopes, together, depict who he is and who he was on this day.
The photos combine to reflect his passion and dedication; they create a portrait of him in action.
Sara followed along as the group listened to speakers, marched to the Milwaukee Art Museum for a historic photo, and went to dinner for bonding and celebration. She says she was working alone, so she “had to be mobile and keep it simple.” She sought to use an adapted long-form approach, where she told the story over the course of the day.
I love the freedom of exploration and the time to let the story unfold naturally.
Sara found it impossible not to be moved by the course of the day, and by Andre’s work in general. Since he began his community work in his Milwaukee neighborhood, the area went from the number one or two crime area in the city, to number twelve. Sara says she would be interested in finding some of the boys from the event and getting portraits of them in their regular clothes.